Observations on Teaching Observation

I’m about three months from finishing my degree at the University of Southampton (my my how four years has just flown by) and I now have to start thinking about what on earth I’m going to do after graduating with my degree in hand. One of the many options I’ve been exploring is going into teaching, specifically I am considering teaching in Further Education Colleges (AS & A Levels in the UK or upper High School in the US?).

Interestingly; in the UK so far as I can ascertain there is no requirement to have QTS (qualified teacher status) before starting work in a FE College though you have to get it within 2 years of starting. However; through discussions about the options it is fairly obvious that having a PGCE in secondary education would be far more beneficial than the PGCE in Post-Compulsory Education, especially with as restricted a job market as we are experiencing at the moment.

>30m Diameter blowout in the Psammosere Succession in Studland Bay, where the school took it's year 10 pupils on a field trip.

In response to this and the requirements of some universities offering secondary PGCE courses, I have just undertaken a week of teaching observation in my old school. This was thoroughly enjoyable and despite it being the last week of the school’s term I managed to sit in on classes from every year group from year 7 through to upper 6th form, helped out on a field course in swanage and also got to observe a practical lab, revision lessons and even a lesson given by a very capable PGCE student. Anywho, now that it’s come to the end of the week and I thought I might as well share my thoughts and observations, and would appreciate any thoughts people have on the matter…

Variation in teaching styles
One of the first and by far the most startling features that I noticed this week was the widely variable teaching styles employed by the teachers in the school, and not just between different year groups (who all have different abilities anyway). For example I sat in on two year 11 (2nd year of GCSE) science lessons by two different members of the department, the first of which I can only equate to the sort of to-and-fro discussion crossed with lecturing I would expect in a University environment, and the second being a more traditional “teacher at front” class environment. I have to say I was far more comfortable in the less formal teaching environments than I was in the rote learning classes.

The most interesting thing about these differences is that I never really noticed it when I was at the school, The teachers were the same people (for the most part) as when I left, and I always liked some teachers more than I did others, but I never really twigged as to why.

BTEC Logo, click to go to edexcel exam board...

“Tactical” education
Something that has definitely changed since I left the school four years ago is the very clear tactical nature of some of the subject matter in later years. What I mean is that the students who tend to “flake” in the exams but who show a real potential in the classroom are removed from the “traditional” GCSE curricula and moved onto more “modern” coursework only courses such as the BTEC first and national diplomas. I have to admit to being in two minds over this. On the one hand I believe in education for education’s sake, and I don’t see how the way you learn something should have any bearing on anything… so long as you learn and get the education every individual deserves. On the other hand I would worry about how taking less common curricular programmes such as the BTEC, NVQ’s and others that fit in to the English Baccalaureate may affect a student’s success in the job market… not that it should.

“Loss of Traditional Subjects”
Another major and interesting change since I left the school in question is that some subjects in lower years have been combined (most notably Geography and History, now “People and Places”) to make room in the school timetable for Literacy classes, over and above English lessons.
Ostensibly this is a good thing because many students struggle with the transition from one teacher in primary to a plethora of teachers in secondary school, but I worry about two things; firstly how can a geography teacher make a good, competant effort of teaching history (and vice versa), and why do literacy lessons need to be added to the curriculum? Surely any decline in literacy rates is an indication that the english curriculum isn’t working and should be changed, not an excuse to add more lessons (and so more teachers) to the curriculum… you don’t see the same thing with numeracy and mathematics.

Classroom Content… and why I couldn’t teach lower school (Years 7-11)
My final observation goes back to the classroom and away from curriculum issues and changing the system. The biggest problem I had sitting in on many of the lessons was that because I got to see all year groups, the differring content was clearly visible, and I can safely say that I would hate year 7-9 teaching, because the subject matter just isn’t there… that’s no fault of the teachers or the children, and I remember when I was in those years and the teaching was no different. I just don’t think I could handle “dumbing down” my subject knowledge to the level required to teach science or geography at year 7 level. I could do it, but I think I would hate it.

…So After an enjoyable week of observing teaching, teaching methods and teacher-student interactions… I have had fun, reinforced my decision to do FE teaching rather than general secondary, and learnt a fair bit about how curricula are decided upon by staff and departments in schools. Still not sure about doing the PGCE secondary or PGCE PCE, but I think that might be decided for me by my applications down the road.

On what museums are doing wrong

This is going to be a part rant, part lament and part questioning essay (hopefully) but before I begin I wish to make clear a few things:

Firstly, as I hope came across in my post: Volunteering at the Natural History Museum, I very much love Museums and all that they entail.

Secondly, I bear no ill will toward, nor wish to make any assumptions about the people of the institutions mentioned or museums in general, and do not wish to disparage their reputations or intentions, but I am going to be frank and honest about my opinions and so hope they will not be overly offended by them.

Thirdly if you feel I have been unfair or am wrong, tell me so and let’s discuss it – that’s why blogs have comment sections, as I am no expert and have the utmost respect for your opinion, especially if more informed than mine.


So then, allow me to begin… are you sitting comfortably?

“Imagine you walk into an old victorian building with high rafters, many columns and arches, and masonry which wouldn’t look too out of place in a medieval cathedral. Everywhere you look you can see mounted skeletons, banks of glass & wood cases filled with stuffed animals, archaeological artifacts & rocks, with pictures and murals adorning the few walls without architectural gems.”

The Central Hall in Natural History Museum, London
Main Hall of the NHM, London | Image via Wikipedia

This is the image in my minds eye whenever I hear the words “Museum” it’s a very specific image, relating to a natural history setting almost exclusively one that I’m sure many of you will have your own variants on; but is this what a museum is? From my experiences both front-of-house (galleries & expeditions) and back-of-house (curation/research) this can be safely said to be a very bad, out-moded image which factually belongs to the history books… in almost every respect.

This image is the “old-world” view of the museum, and it’s very idealistic. This old world way of doing things had many problems, and still does where it is the norm. “new world” museums on the other hand have problems, and I will argue that they have many more than the old… but then I’m a traditionalist so maybe it’s just me?

Older museums were run completely by academics and this could often be seen in the content, The curators were academics and decided what people wanted to see and how much information they got; often very little. I remember going to see museums when I was younger where you might be told the chemical formula for a mineral, it’s name and where it was found, but little or nothing besides. This isn’t the way to engage people in the collections you have in your museum, it is nothing less than boring unless you are a scientist and know a lot about the subject, so maybe don’t need the extra information.

New museums are at the extreme other end of the scale when it comes to information, they contain galleries often with many fewer objects from the collections, but these objects come with expansive paragraphs of writing. The amount of information given is a definite and drastic improvement over a chemical formula and a name. In terms of content however I have found many museums in recent years are disappointing, because it is clear that the information has not come from an expert, but someone who knows how to teach and entertain, but doesn’t have the detailed knowledge to carry it off.

This is a real shame as at the end of the day museums hire curators (or at least they used to) to know about their subject in detail and also to know the collections back-to-front and inside-out. Curators are now in the absurd position where they are by-passed when it comes to writing the information that goes with an exhibit and it’s left to the outreach staff. These outreach staff are often fantastically good at their jobs because they are hired specifically for the role and trained as teachers or educators in the first instance, but they seem to be afraid to ask the experts for input to their work… I don’t know why and have no theories, but its result is information in exhibits that often leaves out vital and fascinating scientific facts in favour of idealistic, unprovable or plain wrong interpretations.

Curators are now in the firing line at some institutions because of this lack of input through no fault of their own. Museums have cottoned on to the fact that while they pay a certain amount of money for a curator who is both good at collections management and an expert in their subject, or pay less for someone who is only good at the former and whose time will not be split with research and academia, and in this time of austerity who can blame them?

…Well me actually, whilst trying to save money is almost always admirable, in this case it is severely short sighted; and here’s why. Anyone who wants to access the collections will have to work doubly hard because the collections manager will be little able to help them beyond telling them exactly where specimen X is. The Museum’s collection may be categorised fully (in some cases for the first time ever) but it just becomes a storehouse, and museums cease to be the places of cutting edge research, learning and fascination that they once were… in effect they lose their soul.

The Wild-Walk exhibit at @Bristol science "exploration" | Image via Wikipedia

Speaking of collections, let’s briefly cover something else. Has anyone else noticed how few actual specimens are on display in many big museums, there’s loads of “interactives”, videos and interpretative text, but there seems to have been a severe decline in the number of objects on display.

To use but one example; When I visited the Natural History Museum in London as a child, I have fond and awe inspiring memories of the Mammalian Megafauna gallery (to the right of the doors as you walk in) at some point between then and the next visit (2008) this was removed wholesale and replaced. Not with an updated exhibit, not with more objects of a different type, but with a very “@Bristol” type exhibit about ecology without a single specimen and with a massive expansion of the museum shop (it now takes up half the ex-gallery). These massive, awesome fossil remains & casts have been put into storage and are now unavailable for public viewing. When the Palaeontology department alone has over 9 million objects, most of which are not on display, to say this is lamentable has to my mind a good change of being understatement of the year.

A History of the World in 100 objects | Credit: BBC/Radio 4/British Museum

All this alongside the BBC/British Museum extravaganza “A History of the World in 100 objects”, which has already showcased many more than 100, and is all about getting the experts in to talk about them, and let the public SEE them. At least someone’s got the right idea! If you asked me, or I suspect most people, we go to museums to see objects of fascination; not to stare at well meaning computer screens and animations.

I could go on as there are other problems such as over rationalisation, the (muted) abolition of free entry at national museums, the mothballing of historically/scientifically important collections etc. but I think I would be labouring my point.

Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps I’m too old-fashioned and traditionalist but I think we need to put educators back in touch with curators, bring back the objects (but not lose the information), ease up on the unnecessary overuse of interactives and above all give our many, beautiful museums back their souls.

Ben Brooks

Short-Link for this post:

That Geological Mini-Documentary

Just in case you’re interested, the mini-geological documentary mentioned in “Urban Geology… wait…wha?” is now completed and uploaded to YouTube on the producer’s YouTube Channel. We did film more than went into this final cut, but it was done for one of the producer’s Film and Media course modules so there was a limit on airtime.

I’ll make a couple of notes about it here because there are some errors that need to be highlighted, mostly caused by my nerves in front of a camera:

1) at 3:27, The photograph used for the oolitic limestone is in fact the lower bio-micrite, as is the photo used later for the bio-micrite itself – I suspect this is an “aesthetic” choice by the producer because the SLR used to photograph the pillar may not have picked up much texture in the oolite.

2) at 5:49, I make the mistake of trying to do unscripted “ad-lib” and get the names of the co-discoverers of DNA wrong (EPIC FAIL), it should be Watson and Crick, not Francis and Crick… c’est la vie.

3) at 6:26, I make an even more egregious error of mis-quoting Charles Darwin, by missing out one of the most poetic parts of the last paragraphs of The Origin, for the record it should read thus (missed words emboldened):

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
– Charles Darwin – Closing words to “On the Origin of Species”

Anywho, I hope you enjoy the short film despite it’s errors.

Ben Brooks

The B!G Marking Experiment

Exam season is upon us once again, and whilst some of us (myself included) have now finished our exams and are anxiously awaiting the release of our grades (or degrees of failure – as some may prefer), others are still going and will have a good week or two before the relative freedom of results purgatory. 

I was walking around at the NOCS the other day and  noticed an old issue (18-24 Sept. ’08) of the Times Higher Education Magazine lying in the careers area of the student centre… whose headline was “The B!G Marking Experiment” and naturally I was intrigued and ended up reading the whole headline feature.

I came away very worried and concerned, and feeling somewhat as if I could have predicted the outcomes of their experiment for them. Basically the range of marks were uniform if you removed the highest and lowest marks (a 66% and a 0% in turn) but that the criteria used by each of their 10 markers was widely disparate.

Anywho, I just thought I would draw your attention to this interesting (if slightly disconcerting) article, and ask you your views if you read it, please leave comments below and we’ll get a discussion going!

Ben Brooks

Short-link for this post: http://wp.me/pFUij-4l

A very British thanksgiving…

In the United Tanks of America; this week is Thanksgiving, the season started by Abraham Lincoln during the darkest days of the American Civil War to remind americans that they did indeed have a lot to be thankful for.  WordPress decided that they would take the opportunity to get people Vlogging about the things in their lives for which they are thankful… however I have missed the proverbial boat, and haven’t the time to go video editing at the moment (hence the tumbleweeds flying around my YouTube channel).

However I thought that in the spirit of things, and always loving the excuse to have a bit of a holiday, this post is about things, places, people and ideas that I – as a lowly british citizen who will most likely amount to nothing – am thankful for. So let’s begin with the obvious: My Existence.

When all is said and done, I am just a great big humanoid mass of cells, made up of molecules which in turn are made up of atoms which in their turn are made up of mostly empty space… if they weren’t so electrically charged, you could actually walk through walls. But this arrangement of atoms didn’t have to be me, I could have been any combination of human DNA imaginable… I could have been taller, shorter, fatter, thinner, disabled (I don’t call asthma a disability) or indeed you and for the chance to live a life, however brief and however pointless, I am immensely thankful.

Next on my list is my family, however flawed they are individually, and however much they argue, without them I would not be the person I am today, without my mother I would never have got even close to some of my goals, and without my father’s deadpan philosophies I would be just as certifiable as my mother can be (sorry ma!). My dear brother could be called a nemesis, except that as he has grown up he has become one of my best friends… despite being a mathematician, rock musician, and politically apathetic to the point of perversion… and I couldn’t be without him.

Talking of Friends, it’s probably worth mentioning them in general, but to go through each one I was thankful for would be beyond the scope of this blog, so I will just mention a couple. The Debaters come first, the people whomI can have a proper discussion with about our differing opinions, but still have mutual respect at the end. Secondly there are the Strategists, those few people whom I trust implicitly enough to confide in on anything, and who will pick up the pieces when I fail. Lastly are the Educators, the friends I have who will answer my questions, no matter how dumb, about their subject areas of specialist knowledge. I have a great respect for my friends, and for my enemies, and I am thankful for them beyond words.

 I am thankful for being in a world I do not understand, as to understand everything in the world, let alone the universe, would then mean there would be no knowledge left to gain, and the point of existence (at least to me) would be null and void… I do wonder what will happen when the span of human knowledge gets to a theory of everything.

That said I am also thankful for Science as when you want to know something, where do you turn? In this world you have two basic options, Science or God, and anyone who reads my blogs/facebook notes will know my views on the latter. Science gives us a toolbox with which to search out the answers to all the questions in the (un)known universe, and it is truely brilliant to gaze up at the night sky, or down a microscope, and find whole new worlds just lying there, that you had never known before.

You can probably add Human Curiosity to this list, and I agree wholeheartedly when Dr Who says things that make him seem to be rather in awe of Humans, remarking on the human inclination for curiosity and exploration. This is one of the things that makes us great, and whilst some all fear the unknown to some extent, we should all try to embrace it.

Mssrs. Jim Thomas, Alan Brown, Zahid Akram and Chris Sweetland are four men whom I am most grateful for having known, and for having had the luxury of being taught by at school, because the four of them together (and by no means on their own) gave me a lust for learning of which I am still afflicted, the former two being Geography Teachers and the latter being Science Teachers were all extremely enthusiastic in their subjects, although of variable teaching success, each and every one having something to bring to the table, Alan made Human Geography bearable and even interesting, and even helped me self learn Meteorology, whilst Jim taught me Glacial Geomorphology, and this I think is the main reason why I went into a Geology. Chris has a way with chemistry that can make it fun and understandable, whilst his industry background gives some perspective and relavance to the teaching, and dear old Zahid, whilst not being the best physics teacher I ever had, was by far the quirkiest, funniest and had the highest enthusiasm!

The last item on my list is Books, mainly non-fiction… because if there is anything you want to know about, even in these days of internet and wiki-(no-peer-review)-pedia there are always books. I sincerely hope there always will be, for there is nothing more satisfying that sitting with a well written book and whiling away the late hours learning something new from the carefully printed and edited pages, and thanks to public libraries, they are accessable to all.

So what about you? What things are you thankful for and why? Perhaps with people taking just some time to consider that question, some will be happier for it.